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Will verify media reports of LG suggesting restoration of 4G Internet in J&K, Centre tells SC

Image for representational purposes only

Image for representational purposes only   | Photo Credit: Nissar Ahmad

The Centre on Tuesday told the Supreme Court that it would verify reports in the media quoting Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor G.C. Murmu saying 4G Internet speed should be restored in the Valley.

Also read: J&K Internet issue | Panel put off decision over terror attacks in Kashmir Valley, Centre tells Supreme Court

A Bench led by Justice N.V. Ramana initially asked the J&K administration and the Centre to respond on August 5. However, the law officers expressed reluctance over the date, saying “the officers may not be available on August 5”.

It was on August 5 last year that the Centre abrogated the special rights enjoyed by the people of J&K under Article 370 of the Constitution.

The court finally scheduled the next hearing for August 7.

Mr. Murmu’s reported recommendation caused a stir as the Centre has been maintaining, and even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court, that the situation was not ripe to restore high speed Internet owing to heightened terror activities in J&K. It had agreed to review the situation again after two months.

The hearing began with Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the J&K administration, straightaway asking for an adjournment. Mr. Mehta said he had received a rejoinder from the petitioner, Forum for Media Professionals, to the affidavit and needed time to respond.

Also read: Govt. ignoring SC order on J&K Internet curbs: plea

“He can take time but I have to submit something. Media reports show that the LG has also favoured restoration of 4G speed. I have annexed them with my rejoinder. What he (LG) has said is in line with the statements made by J&K interlocutor Ram Madhav. While Union of India says it cannot be done now, it has also said the Union Territory can consider,” senior advocate Huzeifa Ahmadi and advocate Shadab Farasat submitted.

“I need time. I have to look into their entire rejoinder,” Mr. Mehta parried.

“We will verify it,” Attorney-General K.K. Venugopal, for the Centre, said.

“Please look into it,” the court said.

In the last hearing, the Centre had informed the Supreme Court that a special committee chaired by Union Home Secretary Ajay Kumar Bhalla met twice on the need to review the restrictions placed on high-speed 4G Internet connection in Jammu and Kashmir but deferred its decision on the issue considering the “startling situation” of continued terror attacks in the Valley.

Mr. Venugopal had informed that the committee called for “further reports” from J&K while agreeing to meet after two months.

Both Mr. Venugopal and Mr. Mehta, for the J&K administration, were responding to a contempt petition filed by Forum for Media Professionals that the special committee was not formed in compliance with a judgment of the apex court on May 11 to review the need to continue with the “blanket restrictions” on 4G Internet access in Jammu & Kashmir, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Senior advocate Huzefa Ahmadi and advocate Shadan Farasat, for the forum, questioned the government’s stand in court. They referred to a statement reportedly made by Union Home Minister Amit Shah on May 31 in a media interview that terrorism had come down in J&K. Mr. Ahmadi also referred to an opinion piece by Ram Madhav, J&K interlocutor, in favour of doing away with J&K’s 4G restrictions.

On May 11, the Supreme Court, acting on a writ petition filed by the Foundation for Media Professionals, directed the Centre and J&K to constitute a special committee with the Secretary, Union Ministry of Home Affairs as Chairperson followed by the Secretary, Department of Communications, Union Ministry of Communications and the Chief Secretary, Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir.

In its contempt petition and a separate application, the foundation said nearly a month had passed since the Supreme Court judgment. There was no record in the public domain about the formation of a special committee “to consider the necessity and proportionality of the ongoing blanket mobile Internet speed restrictions in the entire Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir” as the court had directed.

In fact, the foundation said, the J&K authorities issued a new order on the very evening of the May 11 judgment, directing Internet service providers to continue a blanket restriction on mobile Internet speed to 2G for the whole of J&K. A representation to explain the order and seeking information about whether the special committee was formed or consulted prior to this order had got no reply.

The petition said the authorities had extended the blanket restrictions on mobile Internet speeds on May 27. This time, the government order had cited terror incidents in the Valley — proving that Internet cuts really did not achieve government’s desired aim. A second representation from the foundation to the authorities on the existence and role of the special committee was again met with stony silence.

‘No action’

“Twenty-nine days have elapsed since this Court expressly directed the special committee to ‘immediately’ determine the ‘necessity’ of the continuation of restrictions on Internet access in Jammu & Kashmir. However, to the best of the petitioner’s (Foundation) knowledge, no action has been taken by the special committee, either to comply with this direction and review J&K government’s orders 11.05.2020 and 27.05.2020,” the petition said.

Also read: CPI(M) activists hold protests in J&K

The Foundation said there was no indication if the government has complied with the court direction.

“There is no information available in the public domain about whether the constitution of the special committee has been notified; whether it has conducted any meetings; or passed any orders since it was directed to be established through this Court’s judgement on May 11... Such a lax attitude, especially during a health pandemic and humanitarian crisis, violates both the letter and the spirit of this Court’s judgments which took judicial notice of the concerns relating to the ongoing pandemic and the hardships that may be faced by the people of Jammu & Kashmir,” the petition said.

The petition said the J&K order cited reasons like the “onslaught of summer” and “the melting of snow” as grounds for restricting the Internet speed.

“Such perennial reasons render Internet restrictions permanent and are not based on any emergency or urgency and go against the spirit of the Telecom Suspension Rules,” the petition said.

The petition highlighted that the Supreme Court had itself said in its judgment in the Anuradha Bhasin case that “restrictions cannot be permanent”. If the special committee has been formed, it is supposed to review the ground situation every seven days.

The government stand that Internet speed restrictions do not pose any hindrance to COVID-19 control measures, including use of mobile apps, accessing online educational content or carrying out business activities is “patently incorrect”, the foundation had submitted.

Also read: Respond to plea for 4G restoration in J&K, SC tells govt.

It said the court should revisit the case to enquire from the government about the setting up of the special committee, which should in turn review the Internet restrictions in J&K after considering the material placed on record by the foundation about its unsuitability as a counter-terrorism strategy.

The court should direct the special committee, if notified, to consider the harm suffered by healthcare professionals, students, businesspersons and ordinary people of J&K because of prolonged Internet restrictions.

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